The Coast Guard issued fines and pulled one professional mariner’s credential during a campaign to enforce rules against boats operating as illegal charters on Lake Michigan.

The Chicago-area sweeps, conducted over the summer in cooperation with local agencies including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Chicago Police Marine Unit, were part of a larger national effort by Coast Guard districts to target unlicensed and uninspected vessels for hire in their regions.

Some campaigns covered wide areas, like the Coast Guard 7th District’s efforts that ranged from South Carolina to Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Others were tightly focused, like patrols that netted uninspected vessels carrying passengers on Lake of the Ozarks, Mo.

On Lake Michigan, Coast Guard Station Calumet Harbor, working in close coordination with Coast Guard Investigative Service, conducted 29 boardings on vessels suspected of operating as illegal charters. Twelve vessels were served with captain of the port orders, which terminated the voyages until they complied with federal laws and regulations.

The owner of the Irish Wake, a 31’ recreational vessel homeported in Prospect Heights, Ill., was ordered to pay $14,000 for operating as an illegal commercial charter while carrying nine paying passengers, Coast Guard officials said.

A credentialed mariner from Arlington Heights, Ill., operating the 37’ vessel Doctor’s Orders, admitted to operating a commercial charter without a certificate of inspection, and was forced to turn over his Merchant Mariner credentials to the Coast Guard.

The enforcement campaign also resulted in 36 other operators of recreational vessels seeing their merchant mariner licenses suspended or revoked, or served with tickets and civil penalties for operating as illegal charters, over the past two summers. More than $170,000 in federal and state fines have been imposed so far.

As in Florida, members of the Passenger Vessel Association alerted the Coast Guard to dubious charter operators around Chicago. Owners and operators of recreational boats have taken to using social media and ride-sharing smartphone applications to offer services to the general public, often without meeting the legal requirements for operator credentials, vessel inspection and safety standards, and required drug and alcohol testing for crew, Coast Guard officials say.

Concern that there could be marine casualties resulting from illegal charter vessel operations led to a more aggressive and unified approach, started in 2017 by Chicago area Coast Guard units, led by Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Chicago.

“The Coast Guard’s mission over the last two summers with this operation was to ensure safety of life, not only here in Chicago, but across the nation,” said Cmdr. Zeita Merchant, commanding officer of Marine Safety Unit Chicago. “These owners and operators are putting at risk the lives of the people they embark on their privately owned vessels.”

“The efforts of Chicago Coast Guard units have served as the gold standard across the Great Lakes as well as the Coast Guard,” said Capt. Amy Beach, chief of the Coast Guard Ninth District prevention department. “Surge operations using a unified approach and response strategies have been adopted and implemented successfully at other Coast Guard units in Florida, California, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri.”

Illegal charter vessels are recreational boats that carry paying passengers and are operated by a captain who, in many cases, is not licensed. All operators of vessels carrying paying passengers must be a Coast Guard- credentialed mariner and enrolled in drug-testing program. Non-enrolled mariners are subject to suspension and revocation of their credentials. Vessels carrying more than six paying passengers must be inspected by the Coast Guard and have a Certificate of Inspection visibly posted, stating how many passengers may be safely carried.

Passenger vessel operators must adhere to safety regulations set forth by the Coast Guard. Violators are subject to civil penalties and/or a Captain of the Port Order. Failure to comply with the Captain of the Port Order may result in a civil penalty of up to $91,101 for each day of continued operation. A willful and knowing violation of this order constitutes a Class D felony, which may lead to jail time up to 10 years and a fine of up to, and not exceeding, $250,000.00.


Contributing Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for over 30 years before joining WorkBoat in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. He has also been an editor for WorkBoat’s sister publication, National Fisherman, for over 25 years. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.